Review: Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, 2011, dir. Constance Marks

Kevin Clash could more accurately be described as a wizard than a puppeteer; it’s one thing to simply animate a construct made of cloth and various materials, and quite another to bring them to startlingly expressive life. Tangibly that only indicates Clash’s absolute command of his craft, but speaking more to abstraction it’s representative of his heart and character as a human being. When Clash performs, he disappears. We only see his puppets. On its face, this statement seems absurd; when director Constance Marks showcases Clash operating one of his characters (typically that rouge and most beloved of muppets, Elmo), the Sesame Street Muppet Captain is frequently in full view with nothing to conceal him from his audience. Clash is there, and it’s clear that he’s the one making Elmo talk and laugh and express his immediate and effusive love for everyone he communicates with.

And yet no one seems to notice him– their attention, invariably, is fixated on Elmo. Clash is simply along for the ride, if anyone acknowledges his presence at all. He’s invisible in plain sight. To watch Clash perform is to watch a true master at work, delighting his audiences without ever worrying about breaking their suspension of disbelief. There’s a level of irony to the transparency he adopts while entertaining; as much as we might ignore him in favor of Elmo, we don’t overlook his existence because he’s a bore (though he is somewhat shy). The truth is that Clash himself is an immensely fascinating man beyond being the driving force behind his puppets.

Being Elmo, then, goes about exploring his life growing up in a Baltimore suburb and his journey from Maryland to New York, and from WMAR and Captain Kangaroo to Sesame Street. In an over-arching way, Being Elmo is as much about the history of Jim Henson Studios, its namesake creative mastermind, and his cohorts– Frank Oz, Richard Hunt, Fran Brill, Bill Barretta, Carroll Spinney, and Kermit Love, among others– as it is about how Clash found his place among their number. Through that expanded perspective, Being Elmo becomes not only a film about Clash’s specific passion for puppetry and performance but also about what draws people to that felt-dominated world. Marks, in short, marries a narrow focus with broader implications.

Before the film examines Henson, of course, it introduces us to Clash. We learn almost immediately that he was born to build puppets and to entertain; as a boy, he created his own characters out of whatever materials he could scrap together (most memorable among them being the liner material of his father’s expensive jacket), and put on shows for the other kids in his neighborhood. Seeing where Clash came from keeps the film from reading as a story where everything just sort of happens for its subject, even though at times it does feel like kismet’s at play in his journey from Dundalk to worldwide fame and visibility.

Even so, Being Elmo is quick to get us from Clash’s childhood and teenage years and into the good stuff. Seeing archival footage of Clash interacting with the Hensons, and the Loves, and the Captain Kangaroos is inspiring; at that point in his career, Clash was green next to the people he was meeting, and yet he has a raw, unadulterated enthusiasm that allows him to stand tall next to them without any difficulty. Put much more clearly, Clash feels like he belongs with them. Maybe there’s something to the idea of destiny here after all, though that’s really all on me as Marks doesn’t really address this directly or indirectly. 

 What’s more tangibly a part of Being Elmo is the sheer magic Clash wields when he’s in command of one of his puppets. Being an entertainer is itself a skill; what Clash does and what he possesses represents something far more special. Clash vanishes when he performs because Elmo, ultimately, is Clash. The imminently lovable furry red monster is a part of Clash just as Clash is a part of Elmo. They share a connection. Perhaps that just sounds like stating the obvious given the nature of muppeteering, but the bond between puppet and performer goes a lot deeper than that, and Clash’s exploits with Elmo beautifully, perfectly illustrate that symbiosis between Clash and his non-sentient friend.

Being Elmo, first and foremost, is a movie about inspiration. Marks builds toward emotional beat after emotional beat, each of them defined by one person inspiring another– Clash being inspired by Henson and Love and many others, for example, giving him more fuel in the tank to continue pursuing his dream. In turn, the film becomes about the ways in which Clash has come to inspire others with his characters and his spirit. There’s little about the movie that’s controversial or bipartisan (don’t, for example, expect to see the curtain pulled back on Henson studios to reveal scandals or drama), but Marks makes us understand Clash on a distinctly human level, and besides, he’s so good at what he does that we’re drawn into each audience he performs for that we feel like we’re physically among them. Being Elmo is about how one man’s infectious sense of love and kindness and caring has affected millions of people across the entire planet; bipartisan or not, there’s nothing wrong with that. 

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9 thoughts on “Review: Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, 2011, dir. Constance Marks

    • Thanks a lot, Victor. Do check it out– it’s on Netflix Instant if you’ve got that, and well worth checking out (and would be even if it was over an hour and twenty minutes, which it isn’t).

  1. Fantastic review!

    Saw this back in November at a festival event and boy, oh boy, I haven’t cried that much in ages. Being such a “Sesame Street” fan as a young kid really sent the nostalgia up into my tear ducts, and I was an absolute WRECK by the time it got to the Make-a-Wish kids. It’s great to feel that moved by a movie.

    • Thanks Marshall!

      That part hit me pretty hard too. I think you’d have to be a monster not to get choked up around the 50:00 minute mark; at that point, the film just shuts up entirely and does nothing but quietly document the scene unfolding between Clash, Elmo, the child, and the child’s family. It’s just naked reality.

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  4. I saw this at a film fesitval and the producers were there to discuss the film. I told them of a funeral I had done for a 3 year old boy who had been born with severe Spina Bifida, how much he loved Elmo and how the parents had Elmo put on his gravemarker. They told me that they knew of that and had footage about these markers that they had decided not to use.

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